Twitter  "Algorithms have consequences." Zeynep Tufekci on Ferguson and net neutrality: nie.mn/VpE1Ef  
Nieman Journalism Lab
Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard

This post won’t save journalism. (Sorry.)

No tool will. And that’s okay.
Email

Every few weeks, the new media hype cycle begins again. Some new tool or website comes out that makes some technically difficult aspect of news-gathering or production much simpler, and then that old questionWill it save journalism? — gets asked again, analyzed for a few days, and kicked to the curb under ridicule from obnoxious snarkmongers like myself.

While it’s usually right to celebrate the “it” in the will-it-save-journalism game — when the “it” in question, that is, is a legitimately awesome new tool for making things — it’s also worth considering what we’re saying when we talk about “saving journalism” in the first place. What we’re really looking for is something that will tame the complex work of reporting itself. What we see in each new tool is the frothy hope that it will be, somehow, The One.

But it never will be. There is no tool that will make the journalism simple. But that’s actually a good thing. Here’s why.

In 1975, Fred Brooks came out with a book, The Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering. The collection remains a pertinent classic, since we developers have a remarkable talent for continually making the same mistakes. The title essay demolishes the practice of estimating a programming task as man-months of work evenly divided among a team. Reality is rarely so obliging. (For instance, adding people to a late project will actually make it later, since those newcomers need to be brought up to speed by the workers already behind schedule.) In 1986, Brooks added an essay to the collection, “No Silver Bullet,” which explored why programming is so hard for most people. Shouldn’t there by now be programming tools so simple that any novice can code whatever they want? Shouldn’t all journalists be programmers? In programming, difficulty is almost always synonymous with complexity — but programming has remained difficult despite decades of progress in hardware speeds and software techniques. Why?

The best hope is to grow the skills of developers. Invest in people rather than in tools.

To answer that, Brooks pulled the concepts of accident and essence all the way back from Aristotle. The accidental complexity of software development, he said, involves those problems attendant to the production of code but not related to what the code is meant to do. Programming long ago involved writing tedious, low-level assembly language for computers with comically limited operations and memory. Since then, we’ve seen numerous advances like compilers, higher-level languages, new programming paradigms, comprehensive open-source tools, and an astounding increase of computing power each year.

All those major advances in computer science, Brooks argues, have been advances against the accidental complexity of writing programs. But the essential complexity of conceptualizing those programs remains unchecked. There is no tool (or, to bring a much-needed werewolf reference into the discussion, a “silver bullet“) that will save programming from its essential complexity, he declares; the best hope is instead to grow the skills of developers. Invest in people rather than in tools.

Despite our best hopes, good journalism remains hard, and there is no silver bullet that will mitigate that.

Sound familiar? Newspapers aren’t assembling their editions with hot lead anymore. On the web, quick and dirty hacks we hand-coded a few years ago are the frameworks of today and the nostalgia of tomorrow. On top of that, we occasionally get new tools that further chip away at some of the accidental complexity of digital journalism. But the essential complexity remains. Despite our best hopes, good journalism remains hard, and there is no silver bullet that will mitigate that. But that’s actually a good thing.

Accidentally complex processes are repeatable and predictable; the tools can be improved because the problems are known. The essential complexity in journalism is there because good journalism is by its definition not something that’s been done before. Yes, there are new tools for slideshows and timelines. Even tools for generic reporting like game recaps are coming, but a tool can’t explain why the team has been choking lately or explore the troubling rise in concussions across the sport. A tool might be able to create a shiny artistic jumble for you, but it can’t find you the story in there or explain to your readers why they should care. The essential complexity is not to be abhorred, it’s to be celebrated. So embrace that. Stop hoping for a silver bullet. Learn to program. And remember, no tool will save journalism.

You will.

Image by Daniel Goude used under a Creative Commons license.

                                   
What to read next
BuzzFeed HQ
Caroline O'Donovan    Aug. 11, 2014
With a new round of investment from Andreessen Horowitz, the viral giant aims to get even bigger. One step down that path: making it more clear to readers what kinds of content BuzzFeed really offers.
  • Andrea Vial

    This is a lovely-weekend-post. Thanks!

  • Bryan Murley

    Invest in people rather than in tools.

    The solution sounds so simple, but contemporary media outfits too often see people as liabilities (expenses) rather than investments. Why else would you consolidate copy and design desks from across a region into a single hub?

    Want to “save” journalism? Revive its heart in the boardroom and corner office.

  • http://twitter.com/dancow Dan Nguyen

    I agree with Harris. I think there are two realities that must be accepted by the failing journalism industry:

    1) *Everyone* involved at a traditional journalistic enterprise must have an increased ability to understand the foundations of digital information. I don’t mean take a night course in HTML. I just mean, understand the basic concept behind the code that makes a link a link. Or, how Excel is able to open what looks like a raw text file and convert it to its happy spreadsheet format (i.e. delimiting data). These concepts are likely simpler than the brainwork you had to do to figure out your company’s internal publishing system for entering in and editing stories.

    2) The inability for CEOs and upper management to not care about understanding the above is the reason why they will keep jumping to the next-journalism-saving-tool that’s around the corner. The time and money that they have to keep up this jumping seems to be in critical shortage.

  • http://twitter.com/harrisj Jacob Harris

    Thanks Dan. I guess the point I am trying to make here is that all these time-saving tools we get are simplifying production or news-gathering, but the work of worthwhile journalism (as opposed to just making a word cloud and calling it a day) continues to be hard and you’re doing yourself no favors if you think some magic tool for solving your specific problem will fall from the sky. 

    You’ve obviously seen the same, but we’ve found that all of our best work basically involves bespoke solutions, which is why the only sensible route is to learn to code. Sometimes even, our bespoke solution reveals a general-purpose tool for future similar problems (this is how DocumentCloud was created for instance).

  • Amy Gahran

    I think when people talk about “saving journalism” they mostly mean “saving the news business which until now has written paychecks for journalists.” So that’s not really about tools or doing better journalism, it’s about creating a better, more sustainable business model to support journalism.

    That said, I think various tools can augment journalism or make some journalistic tasks easier to do, like analyzing data or crowdsourcing stories. But that’s not really about “saving journalism.”

    But the tools are really cool. And they often challenge notions of what journalism is or how it can/should be done, or who it’s for. I like that :-)

    - Amy Gahran

  • http://ducknetweb.blogspot.com/ Medicalquack

    I don’t want to see journalism die by any means as I am a blogger that takes what they produce with good information and connect the dots differently.  They still do the legwork by all means but you have both of us around today for good reason. 

    Yeah the software part of it will continuously change all the time, no different than any other industry and so I guess there better be some code heads around to keep up with it.  In th efforts to make it easier for the user and aggregate, it appears it’s getting easier but if you look at what is behind all of it, it’s not, we have tons more code together and integrate. 

  • Matthieu Catillon

    no one said journalism will vanish. just that it won’t be as profitable as it was. so it won’t be as easily able to invest in very high quality content as before. though I feel in the end quality will be on the rise. but less profitable (thin margins), in the beginning (read: another 5+ years). What will shrink is the market surface for the different segment now that people can chose between entertainment and “proper ” challenging content. you are right about the frame and ideas that are 2 different things. there is big hope, future looks good but leaner. lovely post, enjoy the week-end

  • http://twitter.com/burtonjg Jeremy G. Burton

    I second what Amy said. I like the post for being thought-provoking, but it misses the underlying angst of “Will it save journalism?” I don’t think anyone is wringing their ink-stained hands because reporting is oh-so-inherently hard. They feel the sky is falling because thousands of journalists continue to get laid off and bought out. Because Denver and Seattle lost entire community institutions dedicated to the news. Because it’s easy to say “invest in people,” but try getting skittish, profit-watching news executives to actually do it. The issue isn’t the tools or the tech. It’s the economics.

  • http://twitter.com/harrisj Jacob Harris

    That’s a good point. I don’t really have any good remedies for the business side, but I noticed from my perspective a fair amount of confusion between the fact that it’s easier to produce nicer graphics or pull down massive spreadsheets of data with the idea that that was all it took to be a journalist. Or a passivity among some reporters/execs waiting for some tool to fall from the sky that would wildly increase their productivity.

  • http://twitter.com/harrisj Jacob Harris

    I wish I knew what to do about the business side, and I appreciate your point on that. But I’m glad you found the rest of the piece good. I agree that a good tool can make it so much easier to gather news material or produce high-quality graphics or such. But I also am struck by how much quality journalism still requires a lot of work, regardless of how many tools you have in your quiver, which is why I wrote this piece.

  • http://online-products.blogspot.com/ Online Products

    Nothing will … Slowly but certainly everything goes downhill, not just journalism, the whole bloody world! This is but the mere beginning, or at least that’s what I think … 

  • http://newsdex.net/taylor/ Chuck Taylor

    While I agree that tools aren’t going to save journalism, and that the business model is the real source of anxiety, there *are* tools that could help journalists be more efficient and spend less time doing non-journalistic things.

    Let’s start with the fact that there isn’t a content management system out there that doesn’t suck in some way, and that most suck in a multiplicity of ways. The steps necessary to update my newspaper’s website, using a fairly (and, arguably, overly) advanced CMS effectively double the workload of anyone processing news for print and online. In our case, the back end is very capable, but the front end is so complicated and clumsy that it takes months to become competent and swift in its use.

    There also is efficiency to be gained with tools for getting news from the field and into the CMS.

    Those of us involved in editing and presenting news need to touch it less so we can think about it more.